Step through one of the internet's subject gateways and you leave the information jungle behind, says Ayala Ochert
Many academics have shied away from using the world wide web after discovering that it is difficult to sift useful material from the dross. If you are one of them, it may be time for another look. Somewhere in the world, you can be almost sure, is a gateway to the best teaching and research sources in your subject. There are even gateways to the subject gateways - good starting points for the absolute beginner or for an interdisciplinary foray by the more experienced web user.
The European Union set up project Desire (Development of a European Service for Information on Research and Education) in 1996 with the aim of "helping researchers navigate the dense information jungle". Phase 1 of Desire was completed last year. With Phase 2 now under way, the most visible result of this international collective endeavour is a set of subject gateways. These portholes onto the web are designed by librarians from universities throughout Europe who have trawled the web, hand picking quality resources.
The United Kingdom is rich in subject gateways. Establishing them has been an important goal of the Joint Information Services Committee's electronic libraries (eLib) programme. All the Desire gateways are powered by the eLib-developed software Roads (Resource Organisation and Discovery in Subject-based services), which takes care of the underlying structure and management, automatically checking links and freeing the administrator to hunt for useful resources. The next stage is CrossRoads, a single gateway that will allow searching across a range of disciplines, particularly for material that does not fit neatly into any one subject area.
Another Desire project, based at the University of Lund in Sweden, should help academics keep up to date with developments in their subjects. The European Web Index will use a "combine harvesting robot", an "intelligent agent" that can check out any new web sites and report back on them.
In the meantime, the Internet Scout Project, run by the University of Wisconsin with funding from the National Science Foundation, remains the best way for academics to stay on top of new developments on the web. Each week, professional librarians summarise the best of what is new, and produce three subject-based reports in science and engineering, social sciences, and business and economics.
Gateways established with national or international funding tend to cover a broad subject area such as the whole of engineering. Navigate through the gateway's subject tree and you will be directed to more specialised sites where an institution or department has gathered a mass of information on a more tightly-defined subject.
The Perseus Project based at Tufts University, for example, describes itself as a "digital library of tools for studying the ancient world". It contains hundreds of ancient, mostly Greek, texts and their English translations, but it also provides philological tools, interactive maps of the ancient world and catalogues of art from more than 70 museums.
The traditional distinction between philology and archaeology applied at a time when there was a separation of texts and artefacts, but the site organisers hope that by interconnecting all their resources, they will have made it easier for researchers and students to cross traditional subject boundaries. Whether or not that happens, the vast resource contained in the Perseus Project is bound to change the study of ancient civilisations.
Where do you start if you really do not know where to start? "Portal" sites such as Netscape's Netcenter are regarded as valuable cyberspace property as they attract the net-surfing public in vast numbers. For several years United Kingdom academics have had their own portal, the Niss Information Gateway. This JISC-funded service is a one-stop shop for academics, a gateway to subject gateways, as well as being an index in itself. It has a news and current affairs section linking to hundreds of newspapers, a reference section that will take users to any library catalogue, show where to find Roget's Thesaurus or point to the complete works of Shakespeare. There is a section for those who work in higher education, including material from all the funding councils, and another for students.
Gateways and portals make the internet so inviting and rewarding that you might think all human knowledge can be found there. But you would be wrong. When it comes to literature searches, for example, it is probably worth prising yourself away from your desk and taking yourself down to the library. Long before the internet was thought of, institutions were paying for literature searches. Academic publishers are not suddenly about to give away information for which they used to charge. Medline, the mainstay of biomedical researchers for many years, may now be available in various incarnations on the web, but these cut-down versions are unlikely to have the level of detail typically available in an academic library.
Somewhat reluctantly, publishers have been joining forces with library services such as Bids (Bath Information & Data Services) to allow online journal searching over the web, with password access to premium information. But with so many competing commercial data hosts, it will be some time before there will be a simple, universal way of conducting literature searches on the web.
START YOUR SEARCH AT www.THESIS.CO.UK
THESIS, the Internet service, now offers a selection of links to useful sites including subject gateways. Once you are inside the site, select THESIS+ and then Directory
Art and design www.adam.ac.uk
Business and economics bized.ac.uk
Earth sciences www.sub.uni-goettingen.de/ssgfi/geo/index.html
Forestry, veterinary & agricultural sciences novagate.nova-university.org
Social science www.sosig.ac.uk
General bubl.ac.uk/link/ www.konbib.nl/dutchess/
Internet Scout Project scout.cs.wisc.edu (UK mirror)
Medline (Internet Grateful Med) igm.nlm.nih.gov
Perseus Project www.perseus.tufts.edu